The meaning of gender in research ethics must be seen in the context of what gender means in the production of knowledge. Traditionally gender and the human body have been excluded from serious research. Objectivity was the deciding factor, in the sense that anyone could have made the research findings. This meant that the researcher as a subject had to – and could – take a back seat. Today we know that this is impossible and that subjects are gendered, cultural and complex beings, and this has significance for what we observe and recognise. It is not possible to achieve objective truth. Knowledge is situated, contextual and gendered. This article will describe how gender affects the production of knowledge and how important it is for research ethics that we are aware of this.


What is gender? Biology or a social construction? Is it static in the sense that it remains the same in all contexts throughout life, or does it change in the sense that it is subject to negotiation? How we relate to these questions is important for our understanding of cognition – of how we observe, hear and conduct research.

The forms of knowledge – the method of research, content of knowledge, topics and findings – are marked by gender and gender relations (Widerberg, 1993). What is seen depends on the eyes that see. "What we see will depend on what we are interested in, what we have been taught to see and what we have been taught not to see" (Jacobsen, (2000, 33). Seeing clearly is not just a question of having good sight: it is a localised activity that entails awareness of one's own particularity and responsibility for learning to see. Knowledge is composed of experiences. However, not all experiences are accepted as knowledge (Rosenbeck 2014) (See also Qualitative methods).

The goal of science

According to Donna Haraway (1997), the goal of science is to strive to produce faithful accounts. Feminist theory is closely linked to critical theory in that it adopts a critical stance in order to deconstruct established forms of knowledge. Lorraine Code asserts that feminist theory begins with "a realization that epistemologies, in their trickle-down effects in the everyday world, play a part in sustaining patriarchal and other hierarchical social structures, both in the academy and throughout Western societies" (Code, 1993).

The alternative to relativism is neither to perceive the whole nor a lesser part of it. The alternative is partial, local and critical knowledge. Haraway rejects any form of splitting of subject and object in the production of knowledge. "Feminist objectivity is about limited location and situated knowledge, not about transcendence and splitting of subject and object. It allows us to become answerable for what we learn to see" (Haraway, 1997, 285). Karen Barad develops this further: "Knowing is not about seeing from above or outside or even seeing from a prosthetically enhanced human body. Knowing is a matter of intra-acting...knowing is not a bonded or closed practice but an ongoing performance of the world" Barad, 2009, 149).


As human beings, as researchers and as informants, we are marked by gender or the sign we carry on our bodies, to use an expression coined by Dorte Marie Søndergaard (1996). According to Kjell Solheim (1996), since men are gendered this means that they (and therefore he) cannot represent humanity as a whole but 'only' as a man. Hanne Haavind (2000) talks about the pursuit of gendered meanings. The goal is to reveal gender-linked systems of meaning rather than taking them for granted.

Our current views can be attributed largely to the debate that arose in the wake of Carol Gilligan's book: In a Different Voice. Psychological Theory and Women's Development (1982). Here Gilligan criticised Laurence Kohlberg for bias in his research. For many years Kohlberg had studied the question of whether it is possible to develop in a moral sense, and believed that he could document that this was possible. His informants were men and boys. Later he included women in his studies, claiming that they could probably experience moral development but not to the same extent as men. Gilligan, who was Kohlberg's research assistant, claimed on her part that Kohlberg's research and therefore his findings were characterised by his world view, by his male construction – and that he had failed to incorporate this in his deliberations. He is biased in the sense that he – in Solheim's words – believes that he can represent humanity as a whole. As the title suggests, Gilligan is of the opinion that all humans – women and men, girls and boys – are characterised by the difference in body and gender, and that this dissimilarity must be assessed as being of equal importance. Her book triggered a long-standing and wide-ranging debate about gender, ethics and representation that is still important to be aware of today.

Gender, knowledge production and research ethics

In an international perspective, gender research is a separate field of knowledge, at least if we apply the standards that are normally used to characterise an academic field (Lykke, 2008). Gender research is both integrated in subjects and traverses them; like ethics, it is post-disciplinary and transdisciplinary (Skærbæk and Nissen, 2014).

The researcher originates from and is included in the world that s/he simultaneously discovers and explores. Often findings are not immediately accessible to researchers. This is because power and inequality are subtle phenomena that characterise research in ways that are not always observed and emphasised. Every scientific investigation is influenced not only by the researcher but also by his/her informants. Their interaction is and will be marked by complex and volatile expressions of power, gender, culture, religion, age etc., and elucidating these demands considerable ethical endeavour. This again requires critical awareness of the dissimilarities that the difference in gender and body can cause, regarding both one's field of research and the researcher as a gendered subject (Skærbæk, 2007, 2012).

The following examples show in their different ways how crucial it is to be aware of what gender – and power – mean in the production of knowledge, and thus for the ethical implications of ignoring them in research.

Two historical cases

In his study Forgive and Remember (1979), Charles L. Bosk investigated how young surgeons were taught and socialised at a prestigious medical centre. He reflects on his intense absorption in his data. Had he understood such and such wrongly? He even takes the kind words of his informants to mean that he had failed in his task as a researcher and had forgotten that good research practice requires that you mention things that informants would prefer overlooked. In the end, he reassures himself that at least he has told a good story, a story that would be 'good to think with'. Twenty years later Bosk is not so much worried about the story he told as about what he chose not to tell. In an appendix with the title: "An Ethnographer's Apology, a Bioethicist's Lament: The Surgeon and the Sociologist Revisited" (Bosk, 2003) Bosk recognises that omissions that seemed sensible and necessary at the time, in hindsight not only violate ethical research norms but also give less food for thought.

His omissions were mainly due to consideration for the chief of surgery who in his role as leader was vital for Bosk's being allowed to continue his research at the centre. The chief of surgery considered that 'Jones', a doctor, had difficulty communicating with colleagues "as well as with patients"; 'Jones' was not reliable but was mentally ill and would only be allowed to continue if he submitted to examination by the neuropsychiatry department. In reality, however, Jones was not a man but a woman. The reason why Bosk had changed the gender was that he had promised his informants anonymity, but that was not the only reason. In his retrospective analysis he admits that the female informant was subject to sexual harassment by the chief surgeon, and that Bosk himself had become part of the 'boys' club' of surgeons. As a result. Bosk's omissions had theoretical consequences for the story since they largely ruined the interpretation and analysis of his research topic.

In the project Kjønnsnøytral parterapi – den umulige oppgaven (Gender-neutral couples therapy – the impossible task) two psychologists – Aud Johanne Lindvåg and Siri Thoresen (1994) – describe how knowledge and experience of a gender-divided world led them to investigate whether the systemic understanding of therapy as neutral and impartial is justified. Through examining video clips of fourteen couples in their initial conversation with two experienced therapists – a woman and a man – the researchers conclude that the therapists were capable of meeting both parties in a way that substantiated the researchers' hypothesis about power and gender in the therapy room. It was only when they utilised a registration system called the Family Therapist Coding System that they had a breakthrough. The researchers then observed what they had failed to note previously:

  • The therapists more often addressed women when the interventions referred to relationships with other family members, and men were more often addressed when the interventions related to the men themselves
  • Therapists had a tendency to listen more closely when a man spoke than when a woman spokeMen's words were taken at face value, while women were overlooked or their utterances were subject to interpretation
  • Men's topics as the focus of the conversation were upheld at the expense of the women's topics
  • The man was pictured as individual and separate, and the woman as more concerned with maintaining or strengthening relationships
  • Overrepresentation of positive descriptions of the man's behaviour and degree of structure vis-à-vis the woman caused the man to appear more positive than the woman

This article has been translated from Norwegian by Jennifer Follestad, Akasie språktjenester AS.